The Right’s Dreams of American Apartheid

It’s tragic but not surprising that the election of the nation’s first black president would accelerate a racist, nationwide movement to disenfranchise people of color, the poor and the elderly. A new map of states with restrictive voting laws indicates the scope of the problem: racism is not restricted to the former Confederacy.

Many conservatives, including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, argue that 1965’s historic Voting Rights Act is obsolete and in need of repeal. The opposite is the case. The VRA, which currently applies to a limited number of states, counties and townships, should be expanded to include all 50 states.

Conservative arguments for repeal are based in part on the election of Barack Obama. The New York Times 2008 election-night headline, “Obama Elected President as Racial Barrier Falls,” says it all. Charles P. Pierce chides Americans about their “post-racial” wishful hallucinations with his repeated sarcasm, “It’s Not About Race because It’s Never About Race.” By 2011, though, even the NYT’s was forced back up a bit on the wish, running a piece by Toure′ pleading for an end to claims of a “post-racial America.”

We are not a nation devoid of racial discrimination nor are we a nation where race does not matter. Race and racism are still critical factors in determining what happens and who gets ahead in America.

Todd Donovan’s intriguing 2010 study, “Obama and the White Vote,” shows that racial context influences voting behavior. Obama did less well in states with large African American populations, confirming the “racial threat” theory that says racist attitudes among whites grow as the population of people of color increases. Donovan concluded:

Race was clearly a factor in the 2008 presidential election. Independent of innuendo about Obama that was associated with his race, there are reasons to expect that some white voters might still find it difficult to support an African American candidate for president.

The right-wing voter suppression movement is not new, but it has picked up steam. Every honest, thinking person knows that so-called “voter ID” laws are intended to suppress the votes of blacks, Latinos, the elderly, the infirm, and young college students – all constituencies that historically favor Democratic candidates.

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We Are The Founders

America’s greatest promise lies in the bold idea that each citizen in every generation is Founder of the country. Though the promise remains unachieved, the idea is worth celebrating this Fourth of July.

Authors of the U.S. Constitution, which arrived some years after the day we celebrate as our nation’s birthday, considered their document a living one, one that would safeguard freedom while providing plenty of room for change in future circumstances.

In other words, the citizens of every generation would carry the heavy responsibility of founding America anew. Let that sink in.

This Fourth of July there are a good many tea partiers out there demanding a return to some kind of Constitutional straightjacket that never existed in the first place. While we can support their political engagement, we are justified in our dismay at their ignorance of America’s greatest promise. The Constitution was written to guard against those who would turn it into authoritarian doctrine. They would undo a Constitution they claim to worship.

We have one vehicle through which our founding must be enacted: government. Let that sink in, too, because when it does it becomes clear why America’s current conservative movement is to democracy what a chop shop is to our cars. Trash government and you leave authority in the hands of an ungoverned economic elite, a danger that scared the baggy breeches off the 18th Century versions of us.

During her Senate confirmation hearing this weak, Elena Kagan was attacked by Republican Sen. Jon Kyl for proudly writing of her one-time boss, Thurgood Marshall, that he had “an unshakable determination to protect the underdog.”

Kyl is an apparent underdog hater from Arizona, a Kennel Club of a state where one risks harassment, arrest and deportation if one’s overdog papers are not in order. Woof woof.

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Justice Roberts Troubled by Open Criticism of Supreme Court

roberts-oath2Let me get this straight. The U.S. Supreme Court can choose a president it wants (Bush in 2000) or hand powerful corporations the legal tool they need to silence the voices of average Americans in elections, but no one should publicly criticize them? That seems to be Chief Justice John Roberts’ message to the White House.

Mr. Roberts told a University of Alabama audience that the setting at the joint session of Congress degenerated into a pep rally, which he found “very troubling.” Mr. Obama had directly singled out a recent ruling, known as Citizens United, that lifted restrictions on corporations and unions for election communications.

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision said corporations could spend unlimited sums to influence election outcomes, tossing overboard decades of law and precedent. During his State of the Union Speech, President Obama criticized the ruling. Justice Samuel Alito, in the audience, could be seen saying to the President, “That’s not true.”

Roberts’ concern seems to be that the Court should not be dragged into settings even vaguely partisan. Oh reall? Then the Court should have let the voters of Florida decide the 2000 election outcome. What Roberts is really doing is advancing a kind of foggy belief that the Court is above it all, that the justices are Perfectly Objective Judicial Machines. The legal term for this belief is bullshit.

When I’m in a courtroom and the judge enters, I obey the bailiff and stand to the words, “All rise.” I address elected officials by their title, address them in letters as “The Honorable.” Etiquette guards against social chaos, when it’s not taken too far. It’s just a signal of common humanity. But Roberts goes too far, as do a lot of others who fancy themselves better than us average Joes.

The kind of deference Roberts wants has no place in a democracy. The judge is just another guy, appointed by a President who was hired to do stuff for us (which the particular president in questioned failed at, miserably). I don’t like kings. I don’t like people who demand their hems be touched or their rings kissed.

But, then, we might summarize the philosophy of the Roberts Court this way:  “All are not created equal.” Like I said, I’m no anarchist. I observe the formalities, grudgingly sometimes, but I do it. But there’s a limit. Roberts is over the limit.

Americans Hate Supreme Court Ruling on Corporate Political Influence

monopoly-manIt’s no surprise: 80 percent of Americans oppose the U.S. Supreme Court’s notorious Citizens United ruling that allows corporations to spend unlimited sums to influence election outcomes. Sixty-five percent are “strongly opposed.” That’s from a Washington Post poll published this morning.

The dislike is bipartisan. It’s about 8 out of 10 among both Republicans and Democrats. The political unrest we see across the spectrum comes from Americans’ feeling of powerlessness. Insurance corporations have delayed health care reform. Wall Street’s unfettered greed wrecked the economy. The federal stimulus is working — millions of new jobs created — but economic fears persist.

The Supreme Court stepped right in this mess and made individual Americans even less powerful. And citizens know it. It is outrageous that the Court would give corporations unprecedented political power over our lives. It is outrageous that the Court considers corporations people. It is outrageous that the Court rules money is equal to speech, meaning those with more money have more speech.

There are several initiatives aimed at correcting the Court’s terrible error and pointing the nation back toward something like a democracy. Plutocracy is not what the Founder intended, though it is clearly what today’s U.S. Supreme Court intended.

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Robber Baron Update: Supreme Court As the Sheriff of Nottingham

sheriffAs far as populist critiques go, there is perhaps no folk story as powerful and long-lived as the tale of Robin Hood. Ridley Scott’s new film version will be out this summer. It stars Russell Crowe. But just as this tale is revived for a global audience, the U.S. Supreme Court dresses itself up as the Sheriff of Nottingham and rules that corporate robber barons can spend all they want to put modern-day Robin Hoods out of business.

They are curious things, these folk tales. How many people will sit in the audience cheering for Robin and justice, then return to the real world and support actions like the Court’s in its recent Citizens United decision? Good question.

By way of an update on Citizens United, which treated corporations as persons and said they could spend unlimited amounts to influence elections, there are two new pieces ’round the web that deserve attention. The first, by philosopher of law Ronald Dworkin. The second, a political observation from Huffpost’s Ryan Grim. First, check out the trailer for Scott’s “Robin Hood.”

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Medieval Minds and the Plutocratic Plague

Medieval Flagellants
Medieval Flagellants

At the Republican caucus retreat, President Obama showed us the potential of a real-world, unscripted partisan showdown before an unblinking camera. Proving the democratic potential, FoxNews blinked and cut away from the event. That’s how important fakery and deceit are to its mission, and to the success the Right.

It takes more than a willingness to lie to convince Americans that health care reform is a communist plot or that Obama is an illegal alien. It takes contemporary political media more welcoming of artifice than truth. And, it takes money.

That brings us to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision. (The term “Supreme Court” has always given me pause, since too often the adjective “supreme” is taken to modify its wisdom and judgment rather than its standing among the many courts.) In this case, the Court, ignoring precedent, common sense and the law, said corporations can spend unlimited amounts to influence American election outcomes. The decision, Frank Rich writes today, gives “corporate interests an even greater stranglehold over a government they already regard as a partially owned onshore subsidiary.”

No one disputes that right wing spending over the last 40 years has warped our political opinion environment. Their think tanks, television networks, publishers, hate-radio hosts and front groups dominate the message environment. But our reaction too often reminds me of Medieval Europeans’ reaction to the Plague. To find a place for the Black Death in their worldview, only God could be responsible. He must be mad at them. Out of such nonsense were the Flagellants born, a 14th Century group that marched around barefoot whipping themselves with scourges in hopes of warding off Death.

Before we ridicule the Flagellants, however, we ought to check our own duffel of delusions. It’s just as nutty to believe that all forms of communications are equal, that all people are possessed of pure reason, that ideas can and are judged fairly and equally by an informed citizenry who possess free and equal voices and access to information. These beliefs don’t just inhibit discovery of a cure, they help spread today’s plutocratic plague.

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Alito’s Betrayal and Foreign Corporate Money in U.S. Elections

Watch U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito publicly demonstrate his partisan disgust with President Obama. Alito grimaces and mouths “not true” when Obama voices his on-target criticism of the Court’s decision to allow corporations to spend unlimited sums to influence our elections. Alito’s behavior betrays fundamental principles of judicial conduct.

Many on the right are panicking about a deep flaw (among many) in the Supreme Court’s opinion allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts to influence election outcomes. Americans of all political stripes are outraged at the Court’s embrace of institutional corruption and the possible influence of foreign corporations in our politics. Some are arguing the Court hasn’t opened the door to foreign influence. But since many corporations have a great number of foreign shareholders, and many foreign companies have American subsidiaries, they can’t explain how the spending will be banned.

The opinion creates a deep rift between authoritarian and libertarian Republicans, a rift big enough to hurt the GOP in 2010 and beyond. Authoritarian Republicans have an old Calvinist belief that God intends those with authority to be in authority. It’s no longer just a religious belief, having long ago become a principle of secular authoritarians. Power is a sign that one is among the Elect. Earthbound democracy is of little concern, although they do get annoyed when democracy  interferes with their righteous plans. Dick Cheney’s demonstrated impatience with democracy — his snarling annoyance at debates, his secrecy, his drive for executive power — will give you the idea.

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Conservatives and Independents Agree: Limit Corporate Political Spending

Teddy Roosevelt Takes on Corporations
Teddy Roosevelt Takes on Corporations

I was interviewed by Scott Braddock on his popular Dallas-KRLD radio show today regarding the unchaining of corporate influence on American elections. You can listen to the interview here. I urge you to do so, not to hear me, but to hear many of the conservative/independent callers who agree with us. Their agreement has important implications for the 2010 election here — to say nothing of the power of broad-based alliance to undo the havoc unleashed by the court.

Also, Gallup did a poll for the First Amendment Center. Seventy-six percent of Americans agree that corporate political spending must be limited. You won’t realize this from the lead Gallup puts on its introduction. It says:

Americans’ broad views about corporate spending in elections generally accord with the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday that abolished some decades-old restrictions on corporate political activity.

Uh, it’s a mystery how they get that conclusion from their finding that 76 percent of Americans want to limit corporate spending while the court abolished all limits. It’s true that Americans cherish the First Amendment. When asked whether political contributions are equivalent to speech, 57 percent say yes. I believe this apparent contradiction is reconciled by the common-sense observation that corporations’ unlimited political power has the effect of abridging the First Amendment rights of real people. I think Americans understand this at the gut level.

When Foreigners Own America


The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that corporations can spend unlimited sums to influence American politics. Most big corporations have many foreign investors. Some are just foreign companies. Under the ruling, a Saudi company can give directly to a third-party group here and spend billions to get what it wants. I don’t mean to pick on the Saudis. Canada can do it, too. This is different than buying a controlling interest in American companies. This is buying a controlling interest in the State.

The Court’s 5-4 majority opinion leaves foreign influence unaddressed, although it seems to recognize that the First Amendment guarantees foreign nationals the right to spend money to influence American elections. It also leaves the door open for an attack on its opinion. This may be the Achilles Heel of the opinion.

We need not reach the question whether the Government has a compelling interest in preventing foreign individuals or associations from influencing our Nation’s political process. (p. 46-47)

You don’t? Corporations are chartered, specifically, to return profits to shareholders. They do not respect national boundaries because their duty to shareholders says they shouldn’t. This is the amoral logic that got GM and Ford in trouble when they continued building the war machine for Nazi Germany. When their only moral imperative is to make money, it’s difficult for these odd entities the Court calls “persons” to make ethical decisions as a flesh-and-blood person would. Which is just another thing wrong with the reasoning of the court: it refuses to recognize this difference between human beings and corporations.

Journalist Brent Budowsky, among others, has already suggested passage of the American Elections for Americans Only Act of 2010. Budowsky writes:

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Glenn Greenwald: Smart Guy, but Wrong on Court’s “Citizens United” Decision

brainGlenn Greenwald is an insightful writer. He is right about many things. He is wrong about the Citizens United decision, which he defends on First Amendment grounds.

Because we share first names I’m going to refer to him as Mr. Greenwald, for clarity and to signal my deep respect for his work.

I am not going to argue about whether corporations are persons, though I don’t think the Framers had corporations in mind when they wrote the First Amendment. I’m going to argue that the Supreme Court’s ruling has the practical effect of abridging my First Amendment rights and yours.

Mr. Greenwald says outcomes don’t matter. A principle is a principle, and it shouldn’t be judged on its outcomes, which will sometimes be good and sometimes be bad. I thought the American pragmatist philosophers (Pierce, James, Dewey, et al) dispensed with the notion of essential truths existing above and beyond earthly outcomes. Truths can only be judged by their consequences.

For instance, extending the right to free speech to someone in solitary confinement has no meaning, but you don’t know that if you don’t look to outcomes. With no one to hear him, the right is meaningless.

We can and should adapt to changing circumstances, not by abridging constitutional guarantees, but by looking to consequences to make certain those guarantees are fully protected.  In the context of today’s costly mass communications, the Court’s ruling gives corporations an ability to be heard that is beyond the means of average citizens. It handed new powers to corporations, powers that have the effect of curtailing my freedom of speech and yours. To be sure, the wealthy already had this power. The court greatly increased it. Still, the Court’s over-reach gives us the opportunity to correct past inequalities and errors.

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